Thursday, February 28, 2008

I drink your critics! I drink it up!

I need to get this off my chest. I have a question for anyone who can answer it: What the hell is so wrong about There Will Be Blood?

Because I find the reaction from the critics perfectly maddening.

Let’s start with this quote from Roger Ebert’s review:

There Will Be Blood is the kind of film that is easily called great. I am not sure of its greatness. It was filmed in the same area of Texas used by No Country for Old Men, and that is a great film, and a perfect one. But There Will Be Blood is not perfect, and in its imperfections (its unbending characters, its lack of women or any reflection of ordinary society, its ending, its relentlessness) we may see its reach exceeding its grasp. Which is not a dishonorable thing.”

I need to tackle this one-by-one.

On the word “perfect.”

Here’s a crazy notion - films will never be perfect. They will forever remain fallible creations that are just as human as their creators. And that, to me, has always been the beauty of this art form. So why the hell would a world-renowned, Pulitzer-prize winning critic call a film – any film - “perfect?” That might be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen Ebert publish. You critics do realize that
Movie Mistakes has listed 7 continuity errors in No Country For Old Men? That’s the most basic level of craftsmanship, is it not? Of course, the greatest films have continuity errors. Citizen Kane is listed as having 13. Godfather has 55. Does that make them any less great? Not at all. They’re all human films. But Ebert should’ve known better than to call any film, much less No Country, “perfect.” That’s absurd. (And ironically enough, Movie Mistakes has yet to find one single mistake in There Will Be Blood. Not one. The only complaint they posted is that oil periodically splashed onto the camera lense. Big deal. I’m sure there are mistakes, although I’ve seen it twice and have not noticed any.)

On “it’s unbending characters.”

When did the characters ever “bend” in No Country? Can anyone tell me that? Let me quote
Anthony Lane: “The movie charts no moral shift in Chigurh, or indeed in the men around him; all of them are set in stone from the beginning...” Exactly. Never once did Chigurh or Moss ever waver in their single-minded pursuits. (While you can’t say that Bell was “unwavering,” he consistently wavered until the very end.) Doesn’t all of this mean that the characters of No Country were flat and weak in their construction? They’re great characters, but in the debate about the best film in the land, they don’t measure up. It’s not essential to me that a character has an arc, but in great films, they ought to have depth. And critics should criticize weak characters. Stephen Hunter of the The Washington Post may be the only one who did his job. He wrote, “You can't say it cuts to the chase. There was never anything to cut from to the chase. It's all chase, which means that it offers almost zero in character development. Each figure is given, a la standard thriller operating procedure, a single moral or psychological attribute and then acts in accordance to that principle and nothing else, without doubts, contradictions or ambivalence. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the laconic vet who finds the stash, is pure Stubbornness. His main pursuer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in Robert Wagner's haircut from "Prince Valiant"), is Death, without a pale horse. Subsidiary chaser Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is Pride, or possibly Folly. Tommy Lee Jones appears in the role of Melancholy Wisdom; he's a lawman also trying to find Llewelyn but not very hard. He'd much rather address the camera and soliloquize on the sorry state of affairs of mankind, though if he says anything memorable, I missed it.”

Why would the critics heap so much praise onto a film with weak characters? I just don’t understand this. While Chigurh and Moss were one-note instruments in their pursuit of money, Daniel Plainview was a full orchestra whose pursuit of money sent him headlong into madness. Ebert pinned the right “unbending” criticism onto the wrong movie. And I would argue that Plainview did a hell of a lot of bending. He bent every time he negotiated. He made concessions to Eli when he bought the Sunday ranch. He made concessions to Bandey in order to get the pipeline through his land. He made an unspoken concession to H.W. and sent him off to a special school to get help, and thus, gave up his most valued prop to earn contracts. And when Daniel was forced to confess in the midst of his baptism that he had abandoned his child, he immediately bent again and had H.W. brought back home. And he bent even more to pay a teacher to stay with him.

On it’s “lack of women.”

This was a complaint that Manohla Dargis
leveled against the film, too, which I never understood. Who the hell says that every great film must have lead female characters? Or male characters, for that matter? Blood, as we know, was primarily about the rise and fall of Daniel Plainview, but the subplots centered around relationships between fathers and sons and brothers. What’s wrong with that? Who said that you can’t write a story that’s only about fathers and sons and brothers? Why can’t critics judge a film for what it is and not what it isn’t? Why can’t they look at it on its own terms and not complain about the absence of, say, female characters, who were never part of the story in the first place? I read the script before seeing the film and my only (very minor) complaint about Blood are the ways in which so many other sides of Daniel were cut. He was an even richer character on the page than in the film. For instance, you’d learn that he was impotent, which, if you really think about it, explained an awful lot.

On “any reflection of ordinary society.”

Is he honestly suggesting that where he felt Blood faltered in this area, the Coens succeeded? Is he mad? Can anyone rationally say that the world the Coens created in No Country was ordinary? What the hell does that mean, anyway? As far as I’m concerned, Anderson succeeded quite well at verisimilitude – the appearance of truth.

On “it’s relentlessness.”

I may be in the minority here, but I didn’t exactly find Blood all that relentless. I found No Country wholly relentless. In fact, I don’t know why Chigurh’s Terminator-like relentlessness wasn’t a bigger complaint amongst critics. Wasn’t that implausible to some? I recall Ebert’s
review of No Country having a complaint about the transponder. I’m almost certain he had a spoiler warning and a logic question about that transponder and how Chigurh kept finding Moss. I took Ebert’s thoughts with me into the theater when I first saw the film. And now, as I want to reread those questions again, they are no longer in the review. I had no idea that Ebert revises his reviews after he publishes them. Isn’t that cheating? Maybe he got complaints.

On “it’s ending.”

I’m wildly confused on what is exactly Ebert’s complaint about the ending. Earlier in the review, he wrote, “It has scenes of terror and poignancy, scenes of ruthless chicanery, scenes awesome for their scope, moments echoing with whispers and an ending that in some peculiar way this material demands, because it could not conclude on an appropriate note -- there has been nothing appropriate about it. Those who hate the ending, and there may be many, might be asked to dictate a different one. Something bittersweet, perhaps? Grandly tragic? Only madness can supply a termination for this story.” And that’s exactly what Anderson gave us. Plainview was, as they say, non compos mentis. And the ending accomplished exactly what, as Ebert said, “this material demands.” And yet, the ending is a complaint.

It’s confounding to me that critics like Ebert and even
James Berardinelli would criticize the ending of Blood and call it “poorly focused,” and yet, they’d give a pass to the ending of No Country, an ending where a character talks about a dream that had no bearing whatsoever on the story. In the novel, this dream was nothing more than McCarthy hinting at what would be his next novel, “The Road,” “a post-apocalyptic novel about a father carrying the fire to keep his son alive in a world of desolation.” This is okay? At least the ending Anderson gives us was wholly rooted in his story.

Timothy Noah published an article in Slate called
What’s Wrong With There Will Be Blood. I thought, “Finally, I’ll get some answers!” But there was not one word that I agreed with, not his complaints about the lack of “grand political themes” that he felt should have played out more (since when is the greatness of a film measured by its political themes?); its failure to answer the question “How does the world we live in work?” (this is a character study, not an economics class); how it’s “promisingly broad canvas shrinks” (the canvas was never broad but focused squarely on Daniel from beginning to end); that Plainview’s corruption was less defined as Joe Ross in the book (the reasons for Plainview’s corruption couldn’t have been more obvious); or finally, Noah’s belief that Plainview’s “evil” was “innate.” That’s not true. Plainview certainly wasn’t evil in the beginning so how did he wind up that way? It was not innate and Anderson never presented it that way.

But here’s the kicker:

Kathleen Murphy and Jim Emerson had a
Greatness Debate about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood. Kathleen beautifully reinforced my belief that people will embrace characters that are not sympathetic so long as they fascinate: “When I call Paul Thomas Anderson's movie something ‘new,’ I mean that he's working a kind of storytelling that doesn't really invite you in, but compels you to feel in your blood an awful process that is, as one reviewer aptly put it, both ‘sickening and elating.’ The unregenerate energy, call it a peculiarly American incubus, that has chosen to possess Daniel Plainview for a time finally leaves him empty and broken – ‘finished’ -- and moves on, seeking another vehicle for the dark, voracious appetite that is manifest destiny.”

But then she really fights passionately for Day-Lewis. She writes, “But Jim, Day-Lewis' performance is necessarily operatic, over-the-top, designed to be a ‘goddamn helluva show.’ His Daniel Plainview isn't small, and he is an authentic American monster. He's blood-kin to Ahab, whose obsession with a white whale mirrors Plainview's hunger for the oil that runs in the earth's veins. Day-Lewis takes this black-hearted creature inside him, and lets him burn his way out. This takes courage, or a kind of madness, a willingness to act out on the grand scale. Isn't your argument for the craftiness and calculation of his creation precisely the criticism -- all art, not heart -- that's been leveled against the Coens'
No Country for Old Men, a film we both admire? You say, ‘Here is a moral tale of one greedy and misanthropic bastard, a moral gnat played with grand flapping flourishes by a big actor.’ I believe Day-Lewis plays the hell out of a ‘greedy and misanthropic bastard,’ never once stepping outside his character to invite sympathy or empathy. What's ‘moral’ got to do with it? Plainview embodies D.H. Lawrence's description of the ‘black, masterless’ men who invaded the New World: ‘The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.’ The thrumming I hear in the very ground and air of TWBB grows out of Lawrence's insight that, from its founding, ‘America [was] tense with latent violence and resistance.’ We're talking metaphysics here, the stuff that made this country, dream and nightmare.”

And how does Jim Emerson respond? He says, “I have to tell you, Kathleen, when it comes to watching Day-Lewis, I fully acknowledge one fundamental reality over which I have very little conscious or rational control: I do not like him, Sam I Am. I do not like him in a hat, I do not like him with a bat. That response is almost autonomic.”

That might qualify as the most intellectually vapid statement any “critic” has ever said about an esteemed actor like Daniel Day-Lewis. It is offensive to my sensibilities that a man who fancies himself as a fill-in for Roger Ebert will totally dismiss a performance simply because he doesn’t like the actor. I say strip this man of his credentials and find another fill-in for Ebert, because Emerson clearly lacks the capacity to be objective about the true merits of a performance. This kind of automatic, knee-jerk dismissal of a celebrated actor is nothing short of intellectual dishonesty and it’s about as childish as the Dr. Seuss rhymes he used to back up his point.

But, to his credit, he gave one example:

“The movie's (black) heart is the speech Plainview gives to his presumed long-lost brother Henry, about how little use he has for people and how much he hates them. It's a breakthrough moment for Plainview, as he allows Henry into his confidence and his business: ‘I can't keep doing this on my own ... with these ... people.’ And then he laughs, dryly and too loud. It's too, too much: first the contemptuously pregnant pause, then the overemphasis on his disgust with the word ‘people,’ and finally that gilding-the-lily laugh. All Day-Lewis leaves out is the dastardly Snidely Whiplash twirl of his mustache… Day-Lewis shoves me right out of the movie. The emotional void, the disgust, the bitterness -- they're all qualities Plainview also exhibits, but he's a better salesman. If Plainview is trying to bond with his brother over whiskey and misanthropy, or to test Henry to see if he shares Daniel's all-consuming envy and entitlement (‘If it's in me, it's in you’), the oilman and the actor are overselling it egregiously. And that's the fatal miscalculation of this film and this performance: Day-Lewis isn't content to play this character; he stands apart from Plainview, judging him and telling us how we should feel about him, every step of the way. Plainview himself sucks the air out of any room he inhabits (even when he's outdoors), but I feel like Day-Lewis goes him one further, strutting and fretting to upstage his own character.”

I find the last few sentences wholly without merit. Day-Lewis undeniably embodied the man Daniel Plainview heart and soul. And I find any interpretation of Emerson’s about Day-Lewis’ performance in Blood to be worthless because, by his own admission, he doesn’t like the actor. But I do have a few of thoughts about this scene. I’ll grant Jim and Timothy Noah, who also complained about this moment, that it’s a weak scene. But the problem is not Day-Lewis. He played that scene as well as it could possibly be played. The problem is this weak on-the-nose writing, which usually transforms into bad acting even by great actors, and this is a great lesson learned for many aspiring writers. But is this weak scene truly fatal for the film?

When you compare this speech to Sheriff Bell’s dream, I’ll take “I hate most people” any day.

Original here

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